Most people in the nation who know Ginger Littleton’s name know her as the Bay District School Board member who tried to disarm a gunman by swinging her purse at him when the Board was being held hostage in 2010.
The Ginger Moment I remember best was not potentially lethal but was breathtaking just the same. I was meeting in the Dean’s Conference Room at FSU-Panama City with a group of Bay County school and district administrators, academic coordinators and counselors in October of 2015, the morning after our first Bay County Future Physicists of Florida induction ceremony. Ginger had organized the meeting and was chairing it. I was preparing to share some statistics about enrollments in upper level math and science courses at the district’s high schools, and the news wasn’t good. I figured I would be in my usual role as bad cop.
As the meeting began, Ginger started to speak. All of her passion and concern about the future of Bay County’s students spilled out in an intense, boiling stream. As Ginger prepared to hand the meeting over to me, I realized I had stopped breathing. I remember thinking, “What can I possibly say now?” And then it finally hit me: At that meeting, for the first time in my memory, I was the good cop. I relaxed and started to share what I knew about Bay County schools.
In October 2015, the news about STEM career readiness in Bay County high schools was not good. As I shared the news about how neighboring districts were doing a better job and other districts in the state were doing a much better job, I started to think again about all of this bad news and how the people in the room would react. I was thinking about my central principle of education policy: “What people really want to be told is that what they are already doing is wonderful.” I was not telling the Bay County folks that what they were already doing was wonderful. This was not going to end well.
Then I finished, and there was discussion. And then a guidance counselor from Mosley said this, which I will never forget: “Can you come back next month?” I was stunned. After all of that bad news and implicit criticism, they wanted me back?
I went back to Bay County, again and again. I’m going again next week, for my regular monthly meeting with three of the district’s physics teachers and a meeting with parent leaders at Mosley High School. And the reader shouldn’t conclude that I’m doing this out of some noble self-sacrificial impulse. I’m going now because I am refreshed and renewed by the spirit of the Bay County teachers, parents, counselors and administrators who I meet. A few months ago, when I was having trouble scheduling my monthly meeting with the physics teachers, I finally pleaded, “I need a fix!”
The outputs – and it seems so shallow to quantify my experiences there – are undeniable. Physics enrollments across the district doubled this fall over last spring. At Mosley, chemistry enrollments are up almost 60% and physics enrollments are up more than a factor of five. I feel like a fortunate spectator, watching an organization that had been hibernating awaken to excellence.
And it began with Ginger. Like me, Ginger charges ahead while ignoring the usual convention that you should say to your audience that what they are already doing is wonderful. But her audience – Bay County’s leaders, parents, teachers, counselors and voters – seem to be welcoming her tough message. The News Herald’s Eryn Dion tweeted yesterday that Ginger’s election as board chair was greeted with “tumultuous applause”. Bay wants to do better, and Ginger is their champion. It’s a privilege for me to be a small part of that.